Within hours of the rioters breaching the Capitol, the violent assault was over. The day later, Donald Trump conceded the election he lost last fall. In a few weeks, Americans will have a new leader. However, the national security effects of the Capitol insurrection will last far longer.
I spent seven years working in the Senate, and to watch the siege on a place so familiar had a clearly painful resonance. Congress is the body that, at its best, gathers together to decide on the most critical issues facing the country. It is a branch that, for all its bitter debate, retains a sense of decorum and even camaraderie. It is an institution created to transform popular opinion and passions into sober and representative action. It is a living symbol of democracy in an era of division.
Indeed, the assault on the Capitol was an assault on democracy itself. It threatened rule by leaders in power only with consent of the governed, chosen by and responsible to the people alone. The tragedy is that the mayhem was based on a lie. This crowd tried to stop a vote not stolen, protest a system not rigged, and save a country not fallen. This was an insurgency in pursuit of a fever dream, driven first and foremost by the president who has been madly clinging to power at all costs.
In this, Trump failed. His embrace of power over principle incited a mob, but institutions of democracy survived the assault, while the Constitution held its own. Just hours after they evacuated their chambers, members of Congress returned to certify the election for Joe Biden. For all the fears of military involvement, forces played only their proper roles. The legitimate winner will take office despite numerous attempts to deny it. Democracy in our country endures. It is battered but is far from broken.
But the effects will run far, including to national security. Our standing in the world turns not merely on economic might and the force of arms, but also on the strength of democracy. That is now in doubt. Allies will wonder about our stability and resilience. Adversaries could seek advantage in the disarray. It will be harder for a time to convince other countries to respect freedom and human rights. Many will start to wonder about the strongest democracy in the world when it can secure neither its own people from a pandemic nor its own legislative branch from an invasion.
International reaction, from the call of Turkey for calm amidst a domestic political crisis to the insistence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization secretary general for respect of the election results, demonstrates how events in Washington play out on the world stage. At home, malevolent groups watched the ease with which the inner sanctums for democracy were breached. Foreign officials privately wonder if our current troubles reflect one reckless president or reveal several other changes in national character. The assault on the Capitol harmed our country.
Yet there is a path toward renewal that lies in the features of Americans that have always made our country great. We have a spirit of tolerance and compromise, respect for institutions and the rule of law, dedication with common welfare, and fidelity to cherished ideals. We feel removed from this embrace today. But if anything is to be gained from the trauma this week, it could take shape with a national wakeup call.
Democracy is at risk. Rhetorical attacks, false claims, and incitement come with grave costs at home and abroad. The character of leaders matters. Division drives weakness. We now have evidence of this truth. The assault on the Capitol fueled a dark moment in history.
But our country has seen dark days before, and it has always succeeded. Those leaders taking office this month should see in this shock not just a tragedy but a turning point. We have watched how bitter political division invites danger. Now Americans must show the world what a dose of unity and common resolve can accomplish as we move forward.
Richard Fontaine is chief executive officer of Center for a New American Security and served as a foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain.